Droning On

I hate to keep kicking a dead horse, since the subject of drone attacks targeting innocent civilians is obviously not one that concerns most people. But a recent story carried by a British (not an American) newspaper caught my eye. It’s about a retired Air Force enlisted man whose job while in the military was operating unmanned aircraft in their attacks on targets in the Middle East. He was sitting comfortably — or not so comfortably, as it turns out — in Nevada watching the whole thing on a TV screen. Just like a game, which is what the recruiters promised him: just like guys in the James Bond movies. Except that it is no longer a game for this man who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and can’t seem to get the images out of his mind. The story carried in the London Daily Mail reads, in part:

A former drone operator who helped kill 1,626 targets says he’s haunted by the carnage he witnessed from behind his computer screen.
Brandon Bryant, 27, served as a drone operator from 2006 to 2011 at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and Iraq. It was a desk job of sorts, but unlike any other, it involved ordering unmanned aircraft to kill faraway targets while he watched.
In an interview with NBC News’ foreign correspondent Richard Engel, Bryant recalled one operation where his team fired two missiles from a drone at three men in Afghanistan.
The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,’ he said, recalling what he saw of the scene through the thermal images on his screen. ‘And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.’
He recalled watching the mens’ bodies grow cold, as slowly the red color detecting the heat of their bodies grew smaller.
‘I can see every little pixel if I just close my eyes,’ he said.

There are so many things wrong here it is difficult to know where to start. I have spoken about the moral crisis these acts of violence signal, though so many Americans seem unaware of it, or simply don’t give a shit. Not only is it a violation of the Geneva Conventions, to which this country was a signatory once upon a time. But from any moral perspective you can imagine it is simply wrong to engage in military activities that invariably take innocent lives — excuse me, cause “collateral damage.” If they were doing this to us, we would see immediately how wrong this is. But since it is us doing it to them  — and they are thousands of miles away and wear different clothing and look different from most of us — we see no harm. This is one of the things that bothers Bryant: the fact that people over here don’t seem to care, even though we have fits when three people are killed by a couple of stupid kids during the running of the Boston Marathon. We really have become callous, and perhaps a bit blind.  As long as we are safe in our little boxes made of ticky-tacky, watching TV programmed for us by Madison Avenue to sell us products we don’t need, we are perfectly content to have innocent men, women and children killed somewhere else. Just don’t tell us about it. No harm (to me or mine) no foul. And our government is making sure we know as little about these activities as possible. There aren’t many folks like Bryant who have the courage to speak out — assuming that other drone operators are also bothered about what it is they are doing.

Just imagine sitting in a chair in Nevada or New Mexico, or wherever, and watching human targets, many of them only alleged enemies of your country, as they are struck by the missiles your drone releases at them. Bryant can’t get the images out of his head. Neither can I — and I haven’t even seen them except in my wildest imagination. It’s getting harder and harder to make excuses for this president and this Congress whom many people abroad identify with this country. I don’t, but what I think really doesn’t count.


7 thoughts on “Droning On

  1. As you know, I’ve been anti-drones for a very long time, and I fear the day that these drones start attacking Americans on American soil. And anyone who says this will never happen is a fool.

    I am saddened by the apparent callousness of our countrymen towards these indiscriminate killings, and the human psyche costs to all involved. We continue to pay an awful price for these misplaced wars.

    But I’m also interested in trying to understand the why of this indifference. The results are the same, but I wonder if we’ve become so war weary, so tired of an ineffective, unresponsive government, while at the same time being overcome with losing our jobs, our homes, and our health, that there is little room left for the problems of others? Perhaps its not our being more focused on the current soap opera of the Kardashians’ lives, as it is being focused on our own survival.

    As always, you raise interesting points of discussion.

    • I think we have become a nation of people absorbed by our own problems — even if those problems are imaginary. It’s the result of our cultural narcissism. We simply don’t care if our government is killing people indiscriminately “over there” as long as we can do our own thing — whatever that is.


  2. Excellent blog, Hugh. There were stories three or four years ago about PTSD affects being felt by remote drone pilots at an air force base in North Dakota, when the program first started to escalate. They, too, sat comfortably in more or less office rooms and played with their joysticks and bomb-release buttons — and eventually the fact that there were real lives on the other end began to creep into their minds. But, as you said, the military and government want to keep that stuff as quiet as possible, so the North Dakota stories went away. Not that the media was suppressed but I am guessing the airmen themselves were told to shut up.

    It is also similar to some of the delayed PTSD felt by bomber pilots in North Korea and VIetnam: they’d kill unseen victims below, but return to their bases after a day’s run, have their good sleep and meal, etc. Only years later did it hit them. Obviously, the intentional death of civilians is nothing new to the U.S. government ever since it started engaging in the “total war” concept during World War II. (Tokyo, Dresden, HIroshima, Nagasaki and so many more places). But the current use of drones is frustrating and troubling because Obama sold us on the idea that he would stake out a higher moral ground in both fighting the war on terror and in the policy administration of that fight than what Bush had done. By escalating drone attacks, he’s clearly failed to achieve that higher moral ground — indeed, has obviously chosen not even to seek it.

    Barney is also correct about worrying about the possibility of drones one day being used as weapons on American soil. There are many local law enforcement agencies, especially out west but also at the city of Marion, Ohio, that have purchased smaller, unweaponized drones for use in surveillance, a number that has risen greatly the last two years. Not a big stretch to picture those things becoming armed at some point. When they do, I just hope they come with very loud P.A. systems so the suspects in their cars below can be told, “stop, or I’ll shoot this missile!” (More likely, given the number of civilians dead from drones in the Middle East, there’s a chance the drone and its remote pilot will mistake a soccer mom’s van for a drug-dealer’s, and let her have it.) While Obama says the military tries to be precise and rely on good intel, both on-the-ground and electronic (dubious as the claim is), many local law enforcement agencies would have neither the manpower nor budgets to get that precise before pressing “fire.”

    • From what the young man said in the article I alluded to, there is some question about the legitimacy of the targets for the drones. How sure can we be that the people targeted are in fact true enemies of the US? It’s a crap shoot at best, regardless of the reassurances provided by the military. And you are absolutely right: it’s now a small step from domestic drones eventually armed with missiles. We really are approaching 1984.


  3. there is so much that’s wrong here; we need a best-selling novel or big=screen movie to graphically switch the scene //reverse who is running and who is shooting/chasing…. if people were suddenly dashing for shelter while a drone approached, shot down innocents in our own country, they would surely awaken. yes? we could easily switch to a sci-fi movie where the aliens are the ones hunting us down one by one, perhaps from a remote planet… i fear that some would still not ‘get it.’..

    thanks, hugh, and don’t ever stop trying to awaken those who are in a self-contained daze.

  4. I think a key word in your great post is “callous.” When it so easy to kill from your armchair, you lose a great deal of our humanity over struggling with decisions to kill an enemy, especially when they are hiding amongst civilians.

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